Sam Nuchia in Black and White

Houston's top cop has been a pleasant surprise to the city's black community. But in his own department, it's a different story.

When Nuchia took over as chief, one of the most pressing concerns for minority officers was a lawsuit that had been filed by the Afro-American Police Officers League challenging the system of testing for promotion within HPD. Filed in 1975, the suit was languishing when Nuchia took command. But with Nuchia's endorsement, and at the urging of Mayor Lanier, the city stopped stonewalling and reached a compromise, agreeing to changes in the promotional tests and to the promotion of 109 blacks and Hispanics over a five-year period. Though lauded by many minority officers, the settlement didn't go over as well with the white rank-and file, and has been challenged by the two largest, predominantly white, police unions.

"The black and Hispanic officers organizations came to me and said that they were pushing the lawsuit because it had been dormant for too long," says Nuchia. "Rather than fight it out in court, they said they would rather have a settlement and were willing to make some concessions. I had the department's lawyers and the city's lawyers look at their case from a legal standpoint, with the consideration that if legally they were likely to win, it would be better to make the best deal we could. And our lawyers were convinced [the minorities] would have no problem establishing a prima facie case [of discrimination]."

Nuchia says that by settling out of court the city was able to get a better deal than other cities that have faced similar suits. One advantage of the settlement, he says, was the provision allowing the department to spread the 109 promotions over five years rather than making them all at once. Some critics have accused the chief of simply looking out for the city's best interests, rather than the interests of minority officers. However, the fact remains that it was under Nuchia that Houston, 17 years after the discrimination lawsuit was filed, finally dealt with the concerns of its minority officers. And his efforts to deal with racism at HPD haven't stopped there.

Toward the end of Elizabeth Watson's stint as police chief, racial tension festering in HPD began to surface. Minority officers went public with complaints about racist messages written on bathroom walls and broadcast on police radios. The tension was particularly acute at the Northeast Substation, a dingy, bunker-like structure in the predominantly black Fifth Ward. There, blacks complained about bad assignments and unorthodox forms of discipline, such as being made to wash cars after it was discovered that some officers had filed for overtime pay that they hadn't earned. Shortly after taking over from Watson, Nuchia made significant changes at the substation, bringing in a new captain and, perhaps more important, a black lieutenant to clean up the problems. Nuchia acknowledges that dealing with the Northeast Substation was one of his priorities, but says the recruitment of minority officers is an even higher one.

"I made sure that my recruiters and the commanders of my recruiters understood that when I said that we intended to hire minority officers, that they understood that I really meant that," he says. "We were going to be very honest and up-front in our approach to the community in telling them that, and [in telling] the minority recruiters themselves that when they brought [in] a recruit we would not find some excuse for not accepting him."

Nuchia has indeed made a concerted effort to change the ethnic composition of the department. As of this April, 62.5 percent of the 4,600 officers of the Houston Police Department were white males. However, since Nuchia became chief in March 1992, 66 percent of the 839 officers who were graduated from the police academy and moved onto the force have been minorities and women.

In the words of one 20-year black officer, "There's now a black lieutenant in homicide and a black sergeant in recruiting. I never thought I'd see that. We're still behind, but we're moving."

May Walker, president of Afro-American Police Officers League, echoes that sentiment and credits Nuchia for the improved atmosphere. Walker believes minorities have fared better in HPD under Nuchia than they did under Brown, the city's first, and thus far only, black chief.

"Brown had to come in here and not be a black chief," says Walker. "He had the job of coming in here and being a chief of police. He did a lot of things, but he was very careful so that the media wouldn't say he did it for a 'black' reason."

Another black officer agrees: "Brown couldn't do it because Brown was black. Nuchia, coming from the feds, and knowing what has happened in the department, he wanted to straighten it up and get it done. He didn't hesitate. Brown was here eight years and he never addressed the [race] issue. He just pushed it aside."

However, one minority officer who has had close dealings with both Nuchia and Brown believes Brown was reluctant to seek change simply because he was afraid of its impact on his career.

"Brown's ambitions obviously went further than the Houston Police Department," says the officer. "He didn't want any controversy to hamper his movement." Brown, who left HPD to become New York City's police commissioner, now serves as President Clinton's drug czar.

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